Eyal Weisman


Eyal Weisman on the use of forensic architecture with prisons, the potential of the built environment to tell stories, the concept of total incarceration; and the relation of memory to the perception of space, and the way it is communicated.

MC: Can you describe the potential for the built environment to tell stories?

EW: there are so many ways it can do it, this is the spectrum of actions and the extent of the toolbox of forensic architecture. Initially I would say it has methods that relate to but radically expands on the framework of the history of architecture. I think the history of architecture is primarily concerned, primarily interrogates the history of architects and their documents. On seeing the materiality of the building, it separates between what is an architectural action on the materiality; its design, and translation of notation to construction. But not see anything that happens to the materiality of building after that point.

Forensic architecture basically starts to tell histories as a framework, but other histories of the interaction between material organization with a building or landscape of other things, and general history that is happening around it, which can be something as instantaneous as a murder case, to something that is much longer term, like political transformations or environmental transformation.

Its basically locating architecture as a kind of sensor, a political sensor. The materiality of architecture continually registers whatever happens around it, whether it is the intentional design if an architect who would like to convert it, or a bomb that blasts near it. But what it would not do, is to make a fundamental distinction between those acts that affect and are applied on its materiality. So this is the first layer of what forensic architecture is, its a material practice that sees buildings as sensors, and buildings are very good as political sensors. For many reasons to do with that they’re grounded in a place, to do with the political rationale of a location, to do with the kind of use they’re being put to, and the kind of environment within which political processes and incidents that unfold around it.

The second level lis to ask: how do we read architecture as a sensor? We need other sensors to read architecture as a sensor. One of the best examples is to say, we are using videos coming out of conflict zones to which we have no access. In them, we see buildings, and we interrogate the materiality of the buildings as a sensor, as caught by the sensor of the camera. Or the heat sensory, or NDVi capture on a satellite.

The third level is to say we’re not using architecture as a sensor, but we’re using 3D architectural modeling to do something important, to shift from the notion and techniques of montage, that is to say the political relation to images as linear composition of juxtapositions that made political cinema possible from Eisenstein onwards. Towards another relation and composition of images that is navigation. In forensics we are not really wanting to cut the film, We want to keep all films as source material and navigate between one film and another, and the best way to navigate between space time, between images and clips, is within the deep space of an architectural model that allows us to sync up. This is what we call the architectural image complex.

Then, there is another question to do with the question of subjectivity, the question of witnesses. So far, architecture operates within the realm of evidence. A lot of our work has to do with breaking the border between evidence and testimony. And we wanted to see how architecture is located precisely between evidence and testimony. And hence work such as Sidnaya, which is not the first, we’ve done others such as the Mirror Ali investigation. In the beginning of the book I describe how we developed it in the context of the drone investigation.

MC: there are many different types of sites you work with. Is there any kind of specific goals of bearing witness that are particular to the materiality and function of prison sites and detention centers?

EW: Prison offers an interesting kind of testimony in relation to architecture. In prison, the building is not only the site of the physical torture, or condition of incarceration or the site of violation, it is the instrument of violation. Architecture here is one of the instruments of torture. People ask us, where did torture take place in this prison or that site? Its not about where it took place, its what method and the building is not merely locator of a room in which torture takes place. The building enacts it.

Prisons are one of the most radical relations between architecture and the body that exists.

Hence the relation to architecture does not separate …For example, when we’d speak to witnesses about shooting incidents that take place in an urban environment or inside a building, the building could be part of the terrain that defines the event, but it's not a participant in it. Its not as traumatic the relation to the walls, to the windows that we find that the relationship of former prisoners have to prison buildings.

Somehow everything in that relation is alive. Every relation to a window, floor tile, any kind of instrument is an instrument to that which has caused you pain. Therefore you have to have a very attuned relation between the memory of that space and the way it is communicated and articulated. Attuned to the relation to the perception of space, and the way it’s communicated.

MC: I noticed in Saydnaya, one of the triggers the detainees had for remembering were positions that they maintained for long periods of time. They described all kneeling against a wall, or not all being able to fit in a space so taking turns sitting and standing. In your work, how does sensory perception relate to memory and accessing stories from Saydnaya?

EW: In that particular prison of Saydnaya, prisoners were at the threshold conditions of different types of perception, both in terms of vision and sound. They were at the threshold of vision, in that they could hardly see, they were in the dark or lead around blindfolded. They were at the threshold of sound in the sense that they could only whisper to each other, if at all. A whisper to each other so low, that the whisper is more like the physical movement of lips and air coming out of the body rather than actual sound. You are in a space that’s between vision and sound, that is neither vision nor sound. That’s how the architecture was perceived, at the threshold of sound and vision.

MC: When detainees don’t have access to many images, when they’re usually blindfolded or in the dark, how did memory function as an imaging device to help create the reconstruction of the prison?

EW: There is never pure withdrawal of all visual information, even if you have hands against the eye. If you walk along windows, you experience the sequencing of radiation and non-radiation. Even if you have to be silent, you do hear the way that sound circulates in a non-linear way throughout the building. You’re at the threshold between seeing light and sensing it on your skin. Between hearing and feeling vibration with your hands.

But to reconstruct it, you need to enter into that threshold of sense perceptions and effectively start reconstructing it from the recollection of detainees. Then the architecture becomes useful. Building architectural models becomes both the product of memory, we build what witnesses tell us to build, and the building architecture becomes the way to memory. The model builds the form of recollection. The model functions both visually and acoustically, in the sense that the models we were building with artist Lawrence Abouhandan, were also having acoustic properties of which vibration and echo were part of the process of sizing up spaces.

And finding memories within an archive, a memory archive, a perceptual archive, in which time is no longer linear, in which you no longer know what was before or after, what happened here or there … the prison detention process of several years is just far too long and repetitive to have a normal flow of time. It’s almost like bits of recollection were floating within an indistinguishable type of matter.

MC: I’ve heard other formerly incarcerated people describe time this way, when days become so repetitive, locating some slice of memory happens if and when something breaks the cycle, which is often when things are traumatic or violent.

You mentioned the physical site where people were, and the model you are building. They’re both locations and they’re both ‘means’ to an end. Prison is a means to execute torture, and the model is a means to facilitate remembering. The little I know about memory and trauma is that cognitive thought, narrative thought, gets separated from physical memory. I guess this is what happens with PTSD, your body may react viscerally to a trigger, but its very difficult to marry it to the story of what happened. Is this why you’ve developed techniques that begin with sensory processes? I’ve read about some of your processes like echo profiling, and ear witness testimony. Could you speak about sensory strategies?

EW: Anything having to do with sound, you’d be very interested to speak to Lawrence Abohanda, both a PhD student here at the Center, and an audio investigator in his own right. Echo profiling is an attempt to understand the materiality and size of a space by the kind of reverberations that it emanates.

We would never ask about torture directly. We would ask about dimensions, about sizes, sound leakage, light levels. Understanding the memories of torture being so traumatic and so inaccessible, and sometimes so distorted in the minds of survivors, that any direct approach towards that is going to [inaudible].

MC: What kinds of stories start to emerge about the relation of the architecture to the body? You’ve described things like being at the threshold of sensory experience, about the perception of time not being linear, are there other kinds of relationships that stand out?

EW: The architectural descriptions that were requested from survivors, for example, to correct the models of the doors, sometimes straightforward questions of the dimensions of the door hatch, about its size and its distance from the floor, lead to a description of torture that was not told before by a witness that had given several cycles of interviews. When asked what was the size of the hatch? ‘Well, it was the size of my face.’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘Because I was asked to put my face through the hatch, and I was beaten when my neck was caught on the edge of the hatch.’ So this is one example of many when a request to describe a relation of the architecture and the body, is a way into recollection of traumatic things.

Another was when a witness was beaten up in a corridor that we knew to be straight. When being beaten, his hands that were covering his eyes slipped, and he remembers seeing a circular space. And the error from what we knew to be a straight corridor was a very important moment for us, because those errors relate more information than the truth.

We were keeping a catalog of errors, rather than discarding them as superfluous information, as something that needs to be corrected. We collected them, because each error demonstrated two things. One is, it has come out of the matrix of Cartesian space. But distortion is information, rather than the withdrawal of information. It adds to it, it filters Cartesian space through the mental state. In a certain sense the errors manifest the truth of torture more than a precise physical description of a space.

For example, that person who was beaten up in a corridor describes a circle of space, he’s completely surrounded by the building. Its a position of complete experience. To a certain extent that error manifests the truth of torture, that torture has taken place. The distorted recollection more important evidence than precise spatial description.

MC: I wanted to ask about a phrase that one of the narrators in your documentation used, about the idea of total incarceration. It seems incarceration would always be total, but maybe it’s a question of degree on the level of sensory deprivation. Is that a term that you use? What does it describe?

EW: It describes that after months or years in a state of complete sensory deprivation, there is nothing left but the prison. It is a complete experience in a sense that you’re cut completely from the outside. You have no prospect of your release, no information about loved ones, no contact with them. You’re dependent completely and totally, your life depends at any given moment on your wardens. Saydnaya is not a prison, it is like a death camp. It is basically a place in which torture does not happen to extract information through interrogation, it is simply a way of killing people slowly. Its a place in which Amnesty recorded 17,000 deaths. Its horrific. Its a present day death camp. People are driven every day to be hanged. There are crematoriums where they are burning the bodies. In prison you might read something or speak to fellow inmates. There, it’s total. You’re just barely alive. You are skin and bones with the people next to you. It’s one of the most horrific places on earth, currently.

MC: I wanted to ask about goals and desired impact of the work on political systems, and if and how that relates to impact on individuals. How do you hope to use this information to create political change?

EW: There are many ways. Initially, this evidence belongs to the people who produced it. The architectural model is something is something they justifiably feel that they’ve created. It is a vehicle for them to show to other people. There are refugees in Turkey now and it’s mainly circulated amongst Syrian refugees in those places.

‘Secondly, it’s a way to provide advocacy against the Syrian government's use of torture, mass execution. It’s an important piece of information about who are the people that are doing that, why and what are they up to. Only then, and very much at the end there is now a legal process that is being proposed and lead by a German group ECCHR that is using our evidence to bring an international legal claim in international criminal court.

MC: does this relate back to how you were describing the level of evidence functioning at one end of the spectrum? You mentioned the model functions as agency for the people involved. Based people’s reactions who participated, is it a means for them to …

EW: First of all they said, now we can move on. Now that we’ve built the model, we can forget it. Secondly it was a means to build communities around the project to build community. Only then can it expose the truth about the Assad regime, which is not to say his enemies are innocent and that they’re not violating human rights, but to show that the Assad regime is a massive violator of human rights. This is incredibly important.